Thursday, January 22, 2015

Turning Truth Into Fiction

Turning Truth into Fiction
Anne Mateer

As novelists, we are always adding “real life” happenings to our stories. Bits and pieces. Here and there. Mashups of truth layered with fiction. But have you ever come across a real life story—your own or someone else’s, historical or contemporary—and wanted to use it as the plot of your entire novel? My guess is yes. And yet attempting to actually translate a true story into fiction is not as easy as it sounds.

I ran up against this problem fifteen years ago when I wanted to write my great-grandparents’ story of love amidst the Great War and the Spanish flu pandemic. Wrangling it into fiction proved unwieldy, and I couldn’t quite figure out why. I set the story aside for nearly ten years. When I came back to it, I’d learned a few things that helped me take a story from my family history and turn it into a readable novel.

photo credit: CanStockPhoto/ 72Soul

Here are three of the biggest problems I’ve found in turning a true story into a novel:

Real life stories don’t usually have a clear story structure.

Few of us have situations in our lives with a definite beginning and a definite end. Perhaps we can find one or the other. Rarely both. Often neither. Add to that the need for a novel to have clear conflict and defined turning points and you will notice that it becomes almost impossible to plop down an entire real life situation and find story structure in place.

Real life stories rarely have a character arc in place that follows the true timeline of the story.

We process the things that happen to us and to others through the lens of time. In the midst of the actual events the person experiencing them may have had little self-awareness as to how the events or situations were changing them. Yes, they might have be aware that their thinking shifted, causing them to make different decisions, but most likely true clarity came as they lived their lives in the aftermath of that change.

Real life stories are often too complicated for a novel—or too simplistic.

Tension and conflict are desirable for a novel. But sometimes a real life situation has too much—too many characters, too many outside issues, too many different threads. Telling that story “as is” makes for a convoluted novel. Or the opposite might be true. A story that sounds rife with conflict and emotion up front might not have enough in the surrounding story or characters to create a full length book.

Photo credit: CanStockPhoto/ bruesw

These three issues can build a brick wall between our efforts to translate the true story of a person or an event into fiction. But there is a sledgehammer that will break through and help us get where we want to go. It is this:

A novelist is a storyteller, first and foremost. When we tackle a real life story, we can have a tendency to allow the substance of the story to overcome the essence of it. Remind your inner historian or journalist that they must let the storyteller drive this train. If you insist on staying true to every fact of the story you want to tell, you need to write it as non-fiction.

With your storytelling sledgehammer in hand, approach the true story with three swings.

Be willing to add to the facts.

Add subplots that heighten tension over the main conflict. Create new characters that didn’t exist in real life to act as mentors or foils to your protagonist. Make sure the protagonist has clear “want” and isn’t just reacting to a situation thrust upon them. Draw a clear epiphany that maybe didn’t happen in real life until much later.

Be willing to subtract from the facts.

You might need to condense the facts of the real story. Shrink the number of characters or the timeline or both. Reorder events. Simplify backstory.

Be willing to reimagine the facts.

Assign motives to characters whose actions in real life were inexplicable. Create logical connections between people and events that remain disconnected in real life. Rethink conflict to make it relatable to the reader. Make the inner or outer journey of the main character more visible than it was in real life. Maybe even reimagine the conclusion of the story, especially if in the true version there was no actual moment of closure.

When you can allow your storytelling sledgehammer to break through the wall of fact, you can transform a real life story into a focused and compelling work of fiction. And if you feel the overwhelming need to set your readers straight on some of the more important facts, there is always the Author’s Note at the end.

Missy here… Do any of you have true stories you're dying to turn into fiction? Do share!

Anne Mateer enjoys exploring history and spiritual truth through fiction. She is the author of four historical novels set in the years just before and during World War I. Besides writing, Anne also teaches an online class on historical fiction through Margie Lawson’s Writers Academy. Anne and her husband live in Texas and have three young adult children. Find out more about Anne’s books and how to connect with her at

Playing By Heart
Lula Bowman has finally achieved her dream: a teaching position and a scholarship to continue her college education in mathematics. But when she receives a shocking telephone call from her sister, Jewel, everything she's worked for begins to crumble.
After the sudden death of Jewel's husband, Jewel needs Lula's help. With a heavy heart, Lula returns to her Oklahoma hometown to do right by her sister. But the only teaching job available in Dunn is combination music instructor/basketball coach. Neither subject belongs anywhere near the halls of academia, according to Lula!
Lula commits to covering the job for the rest of the school year, determined to do well and prove herself to the town. Reluctantly, she turns to the boys' coach, Chet, to learn the game of basketball. Chet is handsome and single, but Lula has no plans to fall for a local boy. She's returning to college as soon as she gets Jewel back on her feet.
However, the more time she spends around Jewel's family, the girls' basketball team, music classes, and Chet, the more Lula comes to realize what she's given up in her single-minded pursuit of degree after degree. God is working on her heart, and her future is starting to look a lot different than she'd expected.


  1. I loved Playing by Heart, Anne. I find true stories too dry to keep my attention! Thanks for a lovely post!

  2. My need to turn real life into fiction fueled my writing as a preteen. After (thinking) my heart was broken by a crush who didn't like me back, I flew to my dad's computer and started typing. I made a happy ending for myself that was quite therapeutic. The writing was AWFUL. But still therapeutic.
    I don't have any true stories I want to turn into fiction now. I do think maybe I'd like to write a nonfiction for youth girls someday though...

    Great post!

  3. I have never thought about the ramifications of writing true stories into fiction. My habit has been to translate incidents or scenes from a memory and stick it into a plot I already have. Looks like taking a life story and wrangling a plot out of it would be hard work. Life is so often made up of small, unrelated "nothings" that amount to big "somethings" when we look back and put them all together.

  4. I guess that's why they say, "based on a true story." Thanks for breaking it down!

  5. I've never considered writing a whole experience into a story, but I've certainly had events spur ideas. Recently, though I brainstormed a story idea based on my parents' meeting and romance. :)

  6. Great points, Anne! My first novel, Spinstered, is a fictionalized version of my story about singleness after 40. In fact, it started as a nonfiction book. I divided my life into three main characters and added story lines and character traits I gleaned from friends or my imagination.

    It quickly became my most personal work, and now I'm writing the sequel.

    The most important aspect of writing from truth was I believed if I was going to do it I had to be vulnerable. It kind of felt like an all-or-nothing commitment. Tell it like it is or don't bother.

  7. I use true stories to generate ideas and start the game of "what if." However, the thought of fictionalizing the lives of real people doesn't appeal to me for some of the reasons Anne listed in her excellent post.

    I tend to be a stickler for historical accuracy, so changing facts to fit a story rubs my fur the wrong way. I fear that some readers might take my version as truth, not realizing that I had to play with the timeline, leave out characters who played important roles in the protagonist's life, speed up a character arc, etc.

    That said, I've read the work of some authors who've done a great job writing "based on the life of" stories. I'll happily leave that to them for the time being.

  8. I love reading books that are based on fact. I guess that is why I really enjoy historical novels. While the story line may be fiction, the history that is woven in is always factual.

    I have a lot of life experiences that could easily be turn into story fodder. My problem is I don't know which one to start with.

    May you have a blessed day!

    Smiles & Blessings,
    Cindy W.

  9. I've never really thought about the effort that it takes to translate a real life experience into a readable story! Thanks for the post!

  10. Wonderful tips. We writers get to play with fun is that! We twist things to make the best story possible. I like that better than my real life sometimes. LOL!
    Love your cover and the blurb. I'll be looking for that book!

  11. Welcome, Anne!!! I have no real life stories to turn into novels but it seems everyone I run into has one for me, lol.

  12. Your book sounds sooo intriguing. I'd love to see what girls basketball team uniforms looked like in that historical era!

    What is the year? In fact I have no clue when girls basketball began.

    This is just so cool.

  13. Hi Anne,

    Welcome to Seekerville this morning.

    Thanks for the tips on turning real life into fiction. I hope you have a great day!

  14. I wish I had read your article four years ago. It would have saved me tons of hair pulling!

    My first book, a WWII romance, was based on a family friend and I learned so much writing it but it was tough. I knew just enough to not feel guilty about adding too or subtracting from her life. And I got to give her the happy ending that she never had.

    But trying to create a workable timeline and be true to the time and location drove me nuts. It took me a long while to let go.

    Thanks so much for this, Julie

  15. Hi Anne,
    Great points! It is hard to turn a real life story into fiction.

    When I was researching my family history on-line, I found some really interesting bits and used the basis of my great-great grandparents for one historical romanc that I hope will someday be published. But I had the liberty of taking bare boned facts and inventing all the other elements of the story! Great fun!

    Your story sounds like a must-read. By the way, did you ever publish that original story?


  16. Wow! Y'all move alot faster in the mornings than I do! :)

    Thanks for all your feedback. It certainly isn't easy to write a novel based on a true story, but some of my favorite works of historical fiction do just that. I have great respect for those authors! But like most of you, I generally take bits and pieces of true stories and recreate them into something totally new.

    And yes, Susan, I finally did write that original story--it was my debut novel, Wings of a Dream! :)

  17. hi Anne
    I set aside news articles all the time for story fodder. Have done so since I was in high school (which is wayyyyyyyyyyy too long ago *heh*) I've mostly used the information as jumping off points and haven't ever really tried creating a fictionalized version of any my clippings.

    This is an awesome post. Like Eva said earlier, it definitely clarifies the "based on a true story" line. Sometimes I think readers/watchers forget that part if/when they get their knickers in a knot about something about a story they think is "wrong".

    I love your book cover and blurb. I will definitely need to check it out. Checking out historical basketball, especially for girls, piques my interest, since I've always been active in athletics.

    Thanks for sharing your wisdom with us here at Seekerville!

  18. Wonderfully insightful post, Anne! When we're too close to real-life events, it can be very hard to let our fiction imaginations run free.

  19. Anne, this is a wonderful overview of turning truth into fiction with the whys and wherefores!

    I'm working among the fumes of polyurethane today because we just had two 160-year-old floors refinished, and the stairway to the second floor of our old farmhouse.


  20. Hi Anne - I have done this on my newest series. Incorporating family history into the stories I write. What fun. I must admit, my favorite dose of "reality" to inject into a story is something I dreamed. Sometimes those things are really great! Appreciate all the advice and the wonderful post. Love your books, Anne!

  21. Keli Gwyn, I do that too!!!

    A story might inspire me, but then the "what ifs" take it in a whole new direction.

    Also, I find myself fixing things from my past or others' pasts by creating an alternative fictional reality.

    Saving the three siblings in "Waiting Out the Storm" and "Made to Order Family" was because no one in my mother's family took in three orphaned children at the time I was a baby and I don't think she ever got over that disappointment in herself, that she wasn't strong enough to step in... and that no one in her cousin's family would take in those children.

    It was a family tragedy that clung to me from the time I first heard the story as a kid, so I had to FIX IT!!!!

  22. Hey, D'Ann!!! I have to say, your story of the Spanish flu and your great-grandparents finding true love was very sweet and memorable. The title is escaping me at the moment, but I remember how beautiful and insightful your writing style was! I don't think I realized it was based on a true story!

    I decided a few years ago that my past family's lives were too depressing to make into a novel! But what I do with fairy tales is similar to what you describe. I add to, I take away from, and I reimagine different parts of the fairy tales to suit my idea of a great story. :-) It's fun!!!

    Keep those great stories coming, D'Ann! And I can't WAIT to see you in May at the RT Convention!!! Yay me!!!

  23. It seems like every time I research, I find someone whose story has to be told. And then I get kind of stuck - how close to the truth do I stick? What if people find it over-the-top and unbelievable, even if it actually happened in real life? And at what point does it become more of a history lesson than a story?? (I love the history perhaps a little too much). Thanks for writing this post - it helps!

  24. Thank you for an insightful post, Anne. Real life events in history often inspire me in my writing, though the characters and story are all fiction. The problem with writing about real life is you lose the ability to ask "what if?"

  25. Rachael makes a good point: sometimes we have to reinvent the truth because the truth is over-the-top unbelievable--even for fiction! Lol! And yes, the danger of sticking very closely to historical events is that you lose the story and it becomes a history lesson. I recently read a historical novel that obviously wanted to tell the story of a certain battle in WWI. Beautiful writing. Great historical detail. But no character arc. No real "story question" to keep the reader engaged and give satisfaction at the ending, even if it wasn't a happy one. That is a case where facts overrode storytelling, when it needed to be the other way around.

  26. Anne,
    World War I is a strong interest for me and I have one unpublished novel about it. It was such a pivotal time (and such a stupid war, LOL). I would like to go back and punch up the book with what I know now, which is a lot more than I knew then, but first I have to finish my obsession with the Oregon Trail.
    I agree with you that raw material is usually a little too raw. When I'm in a critique group and somebody says, "That really happened," it's usually something that needs work or is not believable in its unpasteurized form.
    Jane Kirkpatrick is a master of this. I just read "A Light in the Wilderness" (actually I gorged myself on it, I love her), and I didn't realize until the Author's Note that Letitia and Nancy were BASED ON REAL PEOPLE. Now that's technique...
    Kathy Bailey

  27. Anne,

    I'm always intrigued by authors' creative processes and how they seamlessly weave fact with fiction.

    I loved your insights! Thank you so much!

  28. Hi Anne!

    What you described is the same thing that got me started in historical fiction. I wanted to tell my grandmother's story. To do that, I had to find the gold nugget at the core of the facts. Even though the book ended up sounding nothing like my grandmother's experience, I know that the nugget of truth is there.

    Thanks for the great explanation.

  29. I wrote a novella about my grandparents' love story. A marriage of convenience.

    So I told my mom that (her parents) and she wanted to read it. (hard because it was ebook only)

    And then I had to warn her. I backed it up in history about 25 years.
    And moved them to western Nebraska.
    And grandpa is a cowboy.
    And your parents bickered.
    And your cranky aunt is now a certifiable bad guy.

    So yeah, fictionalize truth, because the truth often isn't all that interesting.

    By all accounts my grandparents got along fine.

  30. HI Missy, Great article that Anne wrote on turning real life into fiction. Yes, you really do need to think all those things. Thanks for having her share with us such wonderful insights.

    Yes, the story of my grandmother's trek across the United States in a covered wagon is a wonderful story. But Irving Stone already wrote it. Thankfully. She is in his book MEN TO MATCH MY MOUNTAINS And her things are in the Smithsonian.

    It would be fun to write my husband's grandparents who fled to the US from Yucatan during the revolution. A couple of his cousins started it.

  31. Hi Anne, Great post today. You are so right and many people don't think of those story elements when they think about writing true stories.

    I really like how you outlined this info. Thanks for joining us today.

    Have fun. Happy writing. Enjoy the research (my favorite part)

  32. I loved Playing By Heart. So infuriating at how limited a woman's options used to be. Definitely engaged me emotionally!

    Hmmm -- personal true life stories that could be made into fiction? Some of mine would be considered farfetched even for fiction! LOL But I knew a wonderful storyteller at church. She's well into her nineties now but she loves to tell about her early years as a young bride in the Canadian prairies. After a whirlwind courtship her new husband proudly brought her to her new home in rural Saskatchewan -- an old Silo that he'd fixed up...a bit. She had four of her six children while living there and her stories are hysterical. Imagine surviving a prairie winter with only a woodstove for heat? Lots of drama but plenty of fun and now, so many years later, those days are the memories she savours the most. Those stories definitely spark my imagination.

  33. Courtney, I wonder how many of our stories are based on either our own or someone else's broken relationships.

    We make it all better by giving those stories a happy ending! :)

  34. As others have said, I take a snippets from here or there and incorporate it into my stories, but I haven't (and don't have any plans to) write an entire story based on true events.

  35. Mary, I'm dying laughing at the caveats about their story!!!!

    Because most of the folks we know would be B-O-R-I-N-G even if the basics of their story(ies) are inspirational!

    We laugh when Hollywood "Hollywoodizes" a story, but gosh, I have to do the same thing to make that character arc reach from beginning to end.

    That's a great example!

  36. WHERE IS VINCE?????

    Is anyone else worried??????

  37. Good afternoon, Anne! You make such excellent points. Thank you! My third (unpublished) book -- they're ALL unpublished at this point -- was the story of my father's construction accident that resulted in life-long paraplegia. I had to add a lot to it just because I didn't know the details. He passed away before I wrote it, and I grilled my mom for as many details as she could remember, but there were still a lot of gaps. The difficulty I discovered with writing fiction based on real life is the emotion involved. On the up side, it's inexpensive therapy. :-)

  38. ANNE!!! Soooo great to have you here, my friend, and EXCELLENT POST!!

    I had to laugh at your statement to "remind your inner historian or journalist that they must let the storyteller drive this train. If you insist on staying true to every fact of the story you want to tell, you need to write it as non-fiction."

    Being a bit of a loosey-goosey gal who HATES research, I tend to fall into your advice above quite naturally! Although, it sure burned me a couple of times in the beginning, trust me! Since then I've learned to stay true to historical details as much as possible, and would not even use a particular word if my etymology dictionary said it came out the year after the time frame of my novel. Since then, although I'm still a stickler for correct historical facts, I do tend to fudge a wee bit on word usage now by a year or two. :)

    Unfortunately, one of our Seeker readers (one of our token males and a truly wise man) DID take me to task on this when he caught me using the word "hooligan" in my 1895 novel, A Light in the Window, because the word wasn't actually in use until 1898. ;)

    Fun having you here, Anne!

    Oh, and, I'm with Ruthy -- where IS Vince these days???


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  40. Hi Annie,
    Thanks for your thoughtful post. I have thought of writing stories based on family. However, to date I've only used family (first) names. I don't have the courage to write beyond that, not while my parents are alive. I'm afraid it would be too painful for them, even though if people knew what they'd overcome, they'd be commended for their survival.

  41. Love seeing so many familiar names in the comments! Waving at y'all! And loving the comments from new friends, too!

    I agree with the person who mentioned Jane Kirkpatrick. She has done a great job telling stores of real people as engaging novels. And Irving Stone, too. One of my favorites!!

  42. MISSY ASKED: "Do any of you have true stories you're dying to turn into fiction?"

    As a matter of fact, I do! And did! JUST last week, as a matter of fact, when I finished my first contemporary from my "Isle of Hope" series, Unfailing Love.

    I took the estranged relationship with my own dad from the age of 21 and how God healed it when I was 23 -- and built a fictional story around it, using the emotions from my past to drive the plot. Needless to say, it was a really therapeutic novel for me to write with LOTS and LOTS of tears!


  43. Anne, I'm doing just that. I have a real mission story that just warmed my heart. So, I'm using the same Texas town, but am adding many other details! It's great fun!

    Thanks for sharing.


    I'm sorry I can't hang our more today. I'm with my parents with no internet and only one bar of cell service :( I hope this message comes through! Anne knows I'm gone today but I'd appreciate y'all giving her a Seekerville welcome. Thank you!

  45. Trying again to comment... I'm sorry I can't hang our more today. I'm with my parents with no internet and only one bar of cell service :( I hope this message comes through! Anne knows I'm gone today but I'd appreciate y'all giving her a Seekerville welcome. Thank you!}

  46. Anne, what a practical post! Your suggestions make so much sense. I can definitely see how we have to change our mindset somewhat to fictionalize a true story.

    I chuckle now when I see, "Based on the true story....." because you know there have just got to be a few creative license aspects to the story/movie. :)

    Your books sounds wonderful!

  47. It is certainly true that real life can't be written into a fictional account without a lot of changes. I have used real events as starting points for short stories I have written, and they always need additional characters or events. Great post.

  48. Anne, thanks for showing us how you can make a true story work for fiction readers. Great tips!

    Glad you could be with us today.

  49. Thanks for your insights on bringing real life into fiction. I imagine it felt like meeting other parts of your family to write it. I remember my great aunt had wonderful letters from the 1700s between two brothers with very strong faith. I wish I still had those letters but it gave me such a great feeling knowing of their faith through difficult times. It would be fun to meet them and make them "come to life" in a story! I've put real elements from our lives into my fiction, as well, and I think it helps me tap into the emotional wells necessary to bring a character to life.

  50. Elizabeth, I love the idea of seeing people come to life in our stories! And the idea of those letters is story fodder on its own!

  51. A friend and I have been asked to write a screenplay based on a true story and we've just been floundering. Your analysis makes perfect sense to me, as to why we're not having much success. thanks for putting my frustrations into words. I was starting to think it was me :)

  52. I self-published the auto-biographical story of the six years my husband and I served as missionaries in the Brazilian Amazon. Your tips are so true, though our book doesn't try to be a novel--though it's written with everything I knew about writing a novel. Download a free PDF from . It's a non-profit venture.

  53. This is great! This concept is my strategy behind all my novel ideas. One I've been wanting to write for years is based on my grandmother's life. She died when my mom was 12, and there are many mysteries about her young adult years. The trouble is my mom wants to write it too, but as non-fiction. :)